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How the Astros arrived ahead of schedule

HOUSTON -- Bob Ford, the longtime, golden-piped public address announcer for the Houston Astros, realized that 2015 was for real after his team overcame a three-run deficit to beat the reigning American League champion Kansas City Royals 6-5 on July 1. It wasn't so much the victory, or the three-game sweep, as it was the reaction of Royals broadcaster Steve Stewart, whom he ran into on his way out of Minute Maid Park.

As Ford recalls, "Steve said to me, 'We can't wait to get outta here.'"

There have been other such whistles from this locomotive that nobody saw coming -- the mystery train that arrived way ahead of schedule. After all, the Astros lost 416 games in the four seasons before this one. At the end of the 2014 season, general manager Jeff Luhnow hired a new manager in A.J. Hinch, then made some canny, under-the radar acquisitions in the offseason -- trading for lumbering Evan Gattis and free-swinging Luis Valbuena, and signing reliever Luke Gregerson and infielder Jed Lowrie. But when Luhnow predicted in January that the team would finish .500 or better, he was openly mocked. The Astros' payroll was 29th out of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, their attendance was 26th, and question marks far outnumbered exclamation points.

In fact, if Ford were to announce the prevailing opinions about the Opening Day lineup at Minute Maid, it would have reverberated as too short, too raw, too big, too iffy, too toxic, too fragile, too low-A batting average ... you get the idea.

But here they are -- too good to be true -- about to wipe their feet on the welcome mat of Yankee Stadium in the American League wild-card game against the most storied franchise in baseball, not to mention the second highest payroll. Go ahead, laugh at the Astros' hitters, who are 21st in the majors in batting average, 16th in on-base percentage and second (the bad way) in strikeouts. With the possible exception of Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA), none of their players will figure in the AL MVP voting.

But look beyond the traditional numbers, and you will find a team that's third in the majors in run differential (+111), second in the American League only to the Toronto Blue Jays. By the arcane BaseRuns statistics, which measure how many runs a team should have scored, the Astros should have 11 more wins than the 86 they needed to squeak past the Los Angeles Angels as the league's second wild card.

And while respect is not a statistic, the Astros are clearly last in that category among the postseason teams. Even in football-mad Houston, they are a well-kept secret, which is too bad because people are missing a helluva party. The 10-game winning streak that propelled them to a seven-game lead in the AL West on May 3. The 15 last at-bat wins. The August sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, when newly acquired Mike Fiers threw a no-hitter that upstaged Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The heroics of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, the most distinctive double play combination since Mutt and Jeff.

Then there are the fashion statements. At the gift shop, fans can buy a T-shirt that reads, "The Only Dallas I Will Root For," over a drawing of Keuchel, or a hat with a silhouette of his Amish-inspired beard. For the recent rookie hazing costume party, Correa had to dress as Wonder Woman.

The one sad note in this remarkably surprising season is that longtime broadcaster Milo Hamilton passed away before he could see them make the postseason for the first time since they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

"This has been a fun ride," Hinch says. "Hopefully, we can keep it going."

So what did the Astros know? Given the infamous hacking of the team's proprietary information by Luhnow's former colleagues in St. Louis, neither he nor anybody else in the organization is about to hand out their recipe. But they've skipped the part about "season to taste" because they were aiming to compete in 2017, not 2015. So they are perfectly happy to try to answer the question that goes along with "What did you know?" -- namely, "When did you know it?"

"We had reason for optimism all along," Luhnow says. "We could see that the bullpen was much better with Gregerson and Pat Neshek, that A.J. was the right man for the job. Then came all sorts of pleasant surprises. But it really hit home for me that we were a contender on my birthday, June 8. That's when we called up Carlos Correa. Not only was he ready to take over at shortstop, but it made us a better, deeper, more-confident team.

"That, to me, was the defining moment."

"But it really hit home for me that we were a contender on my birthday, June 8. That's when we called up Carlos Correa. Not only was he ready to take over at shortstop, but it made us a better, deeper, more-confident team. That, to me, was the defining moment." Astros GM Jeff Luhnow

Indeed, Correa has been all that and more. On the field, he has been dazzling defensively and offensively -- project his numbers out to a 162-game season, and he would have had 36 homers and 111 RBIs to go with his .857 OPS. In the clubhouse, where teammates sport SHOWRREA T-shirts, the 6-foot-4 No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft has thrived in the company of his 5-foot-6 lockermate Altuve. When Correa was asked on Sept. 22, his 21st birthday, if Altuve had given him a present, the rookie had the presence to say, "Playing next to him is like a birthday present every day." Four days later, they hit two homers apiece to help beat the Texas Rangers 9-7 to keep their hopes afloat.

If the Astros do have a winning formula, it's this: New school talks to old school. "People who have never swung a bat or throw a pitch can teach us something about baseball," Luhnow says. "By the same token, people who have played the game can see and sense things that go beyond analytics."

From that new school comes Sig Megdal, a former NASA scientist who fell in love with baseball and came to prominence as the sensei in Sam Walker's delightful 2006 odyssey into Rotisserie baseball, "Fantasyland." Just after the book came out, Luhnow hired Megdal to work in the Cardinals' analytics department, and when Luhnow took the job in Houston in December of 2011, he brought Megdal along with him.

So when did the man who bears the title, director of decision sciences, baseball operations, know that the Astros were primed for launch?

"I had modest expectations at the start of the year -- a .500 team would have been fine for me," Megdal says. "I don't know how interesting this is, but on the first Sunday in May, when Evan Gattis hit the go-ahead home run in the eighth to finish the sweep of the Mariners, I looked at, of all things, the standings. We were 18-7, seven games up in the AL West. None of the other teams was off to a good start. So I could see that if we played .500 ball the rest of the way, we would finish in the high 80s in wins, which might be good enough in the division. That's when I first thought, 'We are a contender.'"

Indeed, the Astros finished with 86 wins -- not enough to win the division but enough to edge out the Angels for the second wild-card spot.

With executives and advisers such as Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz and Jimmy Wynn, the men standing behind the batting cage are sometimes more of an attraction than the men inside it. The other day, Cabell was talking about when he first thought of these Astros the way he did of the 1980 Astros he helped get into the postseason.

"Kinda snuck up on us, didn't they? I was thinking next year, not this year. But Jeff made some good deals, we go on that 10-game winning streak, Keuchel and [Colin] McHugh come into their own, the bullpen steps up. Here's where it hit home for me: The game in September [the 13th] when we were trailing the Angels 3-0 with two outs and nobody on in the top of the ninth. against their closer [Huston Street]. The kid [Preston] Tucker homers. [George] Springer triples, Altuve singles, Correa singles. Lowrie pinch-hits for Gattis, and boom, three-run homer down the right-field line. Then Gregerson closes them out 1-2-3, and we win 5-3. One of the best games I've ever seen."

If there's one Astro who represents both new school and old school, it's Hinch. He was in one of the first issues of ESPN The Magazine as a catching prospect for the A's out of Stanford, but his playing career never really took off. After retiring in 2005, he went directly into the Arizona Diamondbacks front office, and became their manager in 2009 at the ridiculously young age of 34. That, too, didn't go very well, so Hinch went back inside as an assistant GM for the San Diego Padres.

"We actually interviewed A.J. a few years ago," Luhnow says, "and while we really liked him, we could sense he was undecided on what his career path was, front office or dugout. The second time around, he knew, and we knew."

So when did Hinch know he had a contender on his hands? "I first got a sense of our resilience early on. We lose two of three at home to start the season, then win two of three in Texas. Lose three of four, then win 14 of 15. We hit another bad stretch, then win five in a row.

"That's what I love about this team, their heart. There are times when we start going bad, like right before the All-Star break, then we snap out of it. Just when you think we've run out of steam, we pick it up again."

The Astros faced one last test last week when they momentarily lost their hold on the second wild-card spot, but then they won six of their final eight games as Texas eliminated the Angels from contention on Sunday.

Throughout the ups and downs, Keuchel has been the bellwether. The 27-year-old lefthander is 15-0 at home with a 1.46 ERA, and while the wild-card game is in the Bronx, Keuchel beat the Yankees there with seven shutout innings on Aug. 13. That was actually five months after the pitcher first felt he was pitching for a contender.

"I swear, I felt it in spring training. You can get a good sense of a team in Florida. You look around the first day, and you realize the tough times are over -- Hey, we're not gonna lose 100 games. There are some real players in this room, some special pieces. Then the optimism builds and builds, and it's the last week of the spring, and the guys are really excited, and you can't wait for Opening Day."

And on that day, Keuchel beat the Indians and Corey Kluber 2-0, as Gregerson got the save.

Who knows if Tuesday will be Closing Day for the Astros. If it is, then there's next year, and the stockpile of No. 1 draft choices, and the performance of their Fresno Grizzlies, who beat the Columbus Clippers 7-0 in the Triple-A championship game. But if it isn't, and the Astros can get to the next round, and back to Houston, then maybe this is the first year in their 53-year history that they will be world champions.

Wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Then again, that's exactly what the 2015 Astros did.